Pelanduk, RM29.90, ISBN 967-978-886-5
Social Commentary, 2004
Because Lydia Teh is a fellow Klangite, I have no problems shelling out almost thirty Ringgit for her collection of anecdotes Life’s Like That, subtitled rather grandiosely Scenes from Malaysian Life. Ms Teh isn’t writing about Malaysian life as much as her own life as a housewife and mother of four children along with her observations of how things are around her, so the subtitle is quite misleading in a way.
Filled with anecdotes about motherhood, her likes and dislikes, as well as the antics of her children and pets, this tome compiles articles the author has written previously for newspapers The Star, New Straits Times, and the website e-homemakers.net. Alas, I open this one expecting something that is a little more than fluffy and harmless anecdotes. I am looking for just a little social commentary, some satire, or at least some even a little hard-hitting articles that reveal a little about Ms Teh’s views on Malaysia. Alas, instead all I get are happy children, silly doggies, and the obvious targets like litterbugs that won’t cause the author to be secreted into a deserted island by the Internal Security Act.
Not that the anecdotes aren’t entertaining. Some are – the article about cinemas in Malaysia in the 1970s bring back fond memories, for example, as does the article about what Chinese women who have recently delivered a baby have to endure under the tyranny of traditionalist mothers. Ms Teh is a typical Chinese woman in Malaysia in that one can find many Chinese women in Malaysia who have the same routine, life experiences, and stories to tell, so I’m sure I’m not the only one who nods my head to some of Ms Teh’s observations of motherhood and life as a housewife.
The thing is, this book can be a frustrating read because Ms Teh, alas like a typical Malaysian writer in the public medium, also holds herself too much from the reader. She obviously skirts around issues that can be volatile while taking care to emphasize at regular intervals that she is assuredly a law-abiding upright citizen. I don’t blame her, really. In Malaysia, the government controls the media in the sense that the government reviews and renews the licenses of these public media in monthly intervals. That means, anyone who offends Big Brother will be put out of operation with extreme prejudice. Many people who make social commentaries have long learned to dance along the political line. Ms Teh doing the same is simply good sense on her part, especially when she has no strong political agendas to sell in her writing. But nonetheless, it becomes frustrating when Ms Teh pulls back her claws so much that her article on the wet market, for example, is so simplistic and dumbed down that it could have easily come from a comprehension text in a Primary Three workbook.
When Ms Teh exhibits some wit, mostly in the later articles concerning TV (the one on subtitles is too funny), she is at her element as she has me in stitches at times. Unfortunately, I am also frustrated because I can’t help wishing that she hasn’t held herself back so many times in this book. Oh, not to nitpick too much, Ms Teh, but Nikita of the TV series La Femme Nikita is in love with Michael who, however, is not the head of Section One. That would be Operations.
Anyway, back to the book, the author also displays a very Malaysian trait in that she has no reservations about going all the way in toilet humor. I don’t think I need to read about how she pinches her kids’ pimples and “if it’s watery, it will shoot out water-pistol like; if it’s dry, it will squirt like toothpaste being squeezed out of the tube”, much less an entire article devoted to that topic. And don’t get me started about that article all about the different ways people read or don’t read while sitting or squatting in the toilet. I make the mistake of eating while reading through that article so… ugh. Or that one about her kids’ toilet training mishaps. Or that one about durians where she talks about the toilets stinking up after a durian eater’s happy visit. I am trying to eat, for heaven’s sake!
“Textbook-perfect” is the biggest problem of Life’s Like That: it presents a highly romanticized Brady Bunch-like depiction of Malaysian suburbia that prevents this book from having any value beyond an easily-read, mildly diverting read in between transit flights. Not that I am saying that Ms Teh is not genuine in any way, please let us be clear on this, what I am saying is that the writing is such that the wit is too tentative, the barbs lack accuracy or even a focus, and it is too clear that the author is being very careful and very guarded about not wanting to offend anyone in her writing.
Still, I’ve read worse.